AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN THE HOUSEBAND
Catching up with the cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary performance collective/musical sensation John the Houseband before they perform at this year’s Works at Work festival
Imagine what happens when you take a group of well-known choreographers and put them in a format to start a live band—what you get is the collective “performance band”, as they refer to themselves. For all intents and purposes, they operate like any other bands, albeit with a completely different set of creative influences, but they pursue bringing their music to the masses through the performing arts scene, rather than through traditional “band-in-a-van” touring from music venue to music venue.
Comprised of performers and choreographers from Sweden, Iceland, Belgium, Spain, and Germany, who met in theatre school in Amsterdam, they began John the House Band, as they say, to “invest in it the passionate energy of an amateur.”
Having not yet seen a performance by this eccentric group of performers-slash-musicians—something I am looking greatly forward to experiencing—my only contact with the project was through listening to their self-produced album Anthology.
My first run-through of the album was with a clinical ear, to try and get a feel for what John and The House Band are in the traditional sense of musical genre. In hindsight, I realize this that one can’t take in what they do with a traditional “who does this band sound like?” mentality. The first song, Hi, we are John, instantly put me in the frame of reference to the happy sing-a-long style of bands like I’m from Barcelona and The Polyphonic Spree, but that notion was immediate dashed when the needle jumped to the second song Dickshaker, featuring a more of a dystopian reggae sound and the third song Election Day moving through much darker melodies with low droning vocals over a meaty guitar sound.
The album continues on, each song more interesting than the last, with songs dipping into hip-hop and rap, classical folk, classic 808 rhythms, and heaviness more often found in metal bands.
After a few run throughs of the album, I got the feeling that, while the album is a work that stands on it’s own merit, I was still missing out on the whole other half of what made the band a total experience—rather than just one for the auditory senses. I knew prior to listening to the album that they were a performance band, but I was curious to find out what exactly that meant in practical terms, so I reached out to them learn a little bit more about creative brains known as John the House Band:
What is the premise behind the “non-identity” concept of everyone being “John”? Is it one collective identity, in which you are all apart of? Or are you each an individual “John”?
"It is mostly a matter of ease, but then again this John name keeps us busy in a never ending stream of word jokes. It would be nice if it was because of some egalitarian spirit that helps us create art, but as with most things that relate to John, it has got more to do with fun."
Do each of the “John’s” work respectively on their own solo projects? If so, can you tell me about them?
"We all work in the performing arts, but what’s more interesting, recently almost all of us made the jump to more music projects. Melkorka is the up and coming pop star with an edge Milkywhale. Dennis and Anja are bass and drums in a German noise band Kala Brisella. Alma and Hendrik form the musical duo Wowawiwa."
Do the theatre and choreographic processes find their way into how you create songs?
"They can come in quite handy to expand the idea of what a song can be. We are more and more able to play with this, whereas in the beginning days of John, struggling to make something sound like music was enough of a task—then the choreographic skills would sometimes rather stand in the way."
There seems to be a bit of black humor in the song content, can you elaborate on this? Does that particular tone come across in your performances?
"I think it had to do with the 2nd summer tour we made: John Quixote, in which we tried to visit places in crisis. Since then, anger with banks and the 1% is a recurring theme. Maybe this was enhanced by not receiving any funding for this project and all of us seeing our bank accounts empty out. So through that experience, some concerns were added to the lyrics. Otherwise, again it is about fun and sometimes channeling anger and dark stuff is fun. We do a lot of Cadavre Exquis and other writing games to come up with the lyrics."
Do you tailor your performances to each specific event, or do you simply have a song set-list that you play?
"We can proudly say that no concert is alike. Usually, each concert is unique and has at least one song that will only be played in that concert. Because the upcoming Works at Work event is more performance focus, can the audience expect something from John the House Band that is more choreographic in nature? This is how it works with John: the choreography is in the eye of the beholder."
In the end, a combined experience of listening to their album and conducting an interview that was powered by as much tongue-and-cheek as it was a serious answer, John the House Band has captured my attention and earned my respect for approaching the composition of music from a completely different angle. I am a strong believer that music–or at least live music– is as much about performance as it is about musicianship, and I for one am looking forward to experiencing how the “John’s” contribute to the former to add to my experience of the latter.